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We will consider female ascetics in relation to traditional religious orders to examine women’s accessibility to embodied yogic practices and austerities.

– Daniela Bevilacqua


This PodCourse entitled Female Asceticism and Yoga is taught by Daniela Bevilacqua, PhD, a post-doctoral research associate of SOAS University of London.

In this PodCourse we will address the topic of female asceticism and yoga from a historical and ethnographic perspective. We will focus on specific ascetic groups which we call ‘Hindu’ here, to make it clear that we will not be dealing with Buddhism, Jainism, or other South Asian traditions. Specifically, we will deal with female ascetics in relation to traditional, orthodox sampradāyas (religious orders) to examine women’s accessibility to embodied yogic practices and austerities. This issue will then be compared with the accessibility of these practices to foreign female ascetics. This will enable us to consider the effect of ‘globalization’ and ‘Easternization’ in traditional, ascetic milieus and to analyse the role of foreign women in it.

The aim of the course, therefore, is on one hand to introduce the student to the topic of female ascetism and the presence of embodied practices among female practitioners, and on the other hand to analyse the role of foreign women in ascetics circles from a ‘social’ rather than religious point of view, shedding light on a subject that is very often overlooked.

This PodCourse focuses specifically on Female Asceticism and Yoga and is divided into three modules:

  1. Female asceticism from a historical perspective
  2. Female asceticism and embodied practices
  3. Foreign and Indian female ascetics: a social confrontation.

Module 1: Female asceticism from a historical perspective
In the first module, we will frame the course by highlighting the role and position of female asceticism in the past. We will reconstruct the history of female asceticism by considering different sources (textual and archaeological) and different religious contexts in order to place it in a diachronic perspective.

Module 2: Female asceticism and embodied practices
In the second module, using both a historical and ethnographic perspective, we will consider the link between female ascetics and embodied yogic practices (such as āsanas, prāṇāyāmas, etc.) as well as tapasyās (austerities). Eventually, we will see what kind of religious practices are more commonly associated with women today.

Module 3: Foreign and Indian female ascetics, a social confrontation
In the third module, we will deal with the entry into traditional sampradāyas of foreigners and especially foreign women, framing their presence among the contemporary trends of female asceticism in India. We will then compare foreign women’s access to embodied practice on one hand with the early female disciples of yoga ‘lay gurus’ like Krishnamacarya and ‘ascetic gurus’ like Sivananda, and on the other, with Indian female ascetics. Taking into account what we learned in the previous modules, we will analyse this comparison from a social perspective to reflect on the role of foreign women ascetics in the sādhus’ society.

Learning Outcomes

The learning outcomes anticipated for this course are:

  • a clear understanding of female asceticism from a diachronic and synchronic perspective
  • a solid foundation for the study of embodied practices in relation to gender issues
  • to recognize the role of globalization and ‘Easternization’ in traditional ascetic milieu
  • to evaluate the practice of foreign women ascetics from a social perspective
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